Are You Using Technology or is Technology Using You?

It’s the subject that everyone loves to complain about, nobody really wants to do anything about it, and most people are self-confessed hypocrites on the subject. We all know we are technology obsessed and technology enslaved. We whine about how everyone posts stupid stuff on Facebook, but we spend hours reading about that stupid stuff and then wonder where the time went? We rage about the stupidity of the driver in front of us on the phone and then glance down to read the latest text that just came in. While meeting a friend for lunch we make fun of the couple at the table across from us that are both absorbed in their phones, then interrupt our conversation and ask our friend to wait while we take the call that just came in.

Time to Think

Recently I took a week-long vacation. I left for vacation fully planning on keeping up with my email, messages, calls, and online life. By Tuesday exhaustion and frustration led me to turn off all communication on my phone and laptop. The rest of the week was the most rest and recovery I have experienced in a long time. Monday morning I started work and turned all communication channels back on. I was greeted by pages of emails, over 800 Skype messages, multiple voicemails, dozens of texts, private Facebook messages and countless notifications. It took a full eight hours to catch up to everything.

This experience had me reflecting on something I have thought about a lot in recent years: what is the most effective way to use technology?

I am a technology fan. The internet, social media, smart phones, laptops, these are tools that allow me to do the things I do. I use them to make a living, stay connected to friends and family, learn, and create. The key word is that they are tools. I want technology to be something that serves me and to be something that I use. I don’t want technology to be my master and use me. I want technology to allow me to do more, learn more, create more and have a positive impact on my life. I don’t want technology to waste my time, distract me from what is important, cram my head full of urgent, but useless, information, or entice me into some false virtual digital reality that keeps me from fully living in the real physical reality that I exist in.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, nor do I claim that I consistently follow my own advice, but here are three strategies that I use to be deliberate about using technology, and preventing it from using me.

Strategy Number One: Only Use Technology to Solve a Problem That Actually Exists

“There’s an app for that.” And “that” encompasses every conceivable problem that you have ever faced, and a bewildering amount of problems that you didn’t even know existed, but now are determined to solve. When I got my first “smart” device I did what almost everyone does and gorged on apps. I downloaded apps to help me work out, be productive, keep in touch, stay up to date, play my music, keep from being bored, and kill any free time that might creep into my schedule. I soon discovered that all these apps had revealed all kinds of problems that I hadn’t realized I had before! I also discovered that it took a lot of time to manage all of my new found problems with my new found solutions. Soon I had my face buried in my phone every spare minute. Why was it that a few weeks before I got this thing that I didn’t have all these problems I had now? Often apps are an answer to a problem that the app created in the first place.

Now I use a new strategy. I try to approach life using as little technology as possible. When a problem comes up I consider the problem and ask myself if technology can help me solve this problem? If the answer is yes then I go looking for a technology based solution. For most people a smart phone is the piece of tech they use the most. When I get a new phone I erase every app I can remove and hide everything else. Starting with a blank slate I add apps only as I need them to address real problems that I have, not tech created problems that I think I have.

After doing this for a while I know that beyond the basic smart phone features (phone, text internet, email, calendar, camera, contacts) there are 3-5 apps that I use every single day and I consider irreplaceable tools (Ovo Timer, Google Maps, Pocket Casts, WeatherBug, and Evernote in case you’re wondering). Add 2-3 essential work apps like Skype and Slack, some less frequently used, but very helpful apps such as airline and hotel specific apps and Uber, and a few music and entertainment apps (no games, ever) and my list of apps that I actually need to solve real problems comes to about 20-25. With these 20-25 apps my smart phone becomes a highly customized and highly effective toolbox that allows me to do more, create more, and be more effective by helping me instead of distracting me.

Strategy Number Two: Get in the Habit of Using Technology to Create Instead of Recreate

Technology can be addictive. In many cases technology is designed to be addictive. I recently had a conversation with a neuroscientist who studies technology. He told me that from a brain chemistry perspective entertainment technology like video games are more addictive than cocaine. You read that right. Entertainment technology can release more pleasure chemicals in your brain than cocaine. Those chemicals released in your brain hook you on the experience that caused them to be released and cause you to seek out that same stimulus again and again. At some level you are wasting time playing Candy Crush (and chasing Pokemon) and scrolling through Facebook because you have developed a chemical dependency on them. How do you break that dependency?

My solution is to change your perspective on what you use technology to do. Instead of thinking of technology as something you use for recreation, for entertainment and amusement, think of technology as something you use for creation. That means you first consider technology as something that helps you solve a problem, learn something new, build something, create something, connect to someone, communicate, and collaborate. Viewed from this perspective technology becomes a time multiplier instead of a time waster, allowing you to do more instead of doing less.

This change of perspective is a really powerful way to make sure that technology is serving you and that you are the master, instead of you serving it and becoming a slave to the machine. When you think of technology in this way it becomes a tool that you use to achieve and accomplish something bigger and better, and not an end in itself. This perspective change is comprehensive and applies to all technology. Your smartphone becomes a problem solving device, not a distraction you get lost in. Social media becomes a way to communicate your message effectively and learn from and listen to others and stay connected to those you care about, not time suck of stupid animal videos. The Internet becomes a massive learning tool to inform and sharpen your thinking, and construction site and platform to build and share your ideas with the world, not a mind numbing alternate world that offers fantasy that replaces reality.  

Does that mean you can never watch a movie online or laugh at a stupid video on YouTube? Changing your perspective impacts your entertainment choices as much as everything else. If you mindlessly binge watch the latest TV show on Netflix because you were just “clicking around” and found something that caught your attention have you been entertained and refreshed or just numbed and lost several hours of your life? Compare that to deciding ahead of time that Friday night is your night to relax. This Friday you decide that you want to watch a movie. Watching online is more convenient and less expensive than going to the theater, an example of technology addressing real problems. You take a break, watch the movie, and enjoy the convenience and money saved. Being deliberate changes everything.

Strategy Number Three: Take a Break!

The biggest lesson here is that you are in charge. Technology is a tool to be used. When you’re done nailing shingles on a roof you put the hammer back in your toolbox. When you finish digging the ditch you put the shovel back in the shed. If you kept your hammer in your hand and kept tapping it on the table it would be hard to eat dinner and distracting to your fellow diners. If you toted your shovel along with you on your next date and occasionally dug up some dirt it would likely be your last date. So why can’t you put down the technology tool?

When you’re done working or studying for the day don’t just close the laptop, turn it off! Turn it back on if you really need it, but use the extra time it takes to check your perspective. Are you turning it on to create or recreate?  Your smartphone has a “no notifications” feature and airplane mode. Use them! Take a moment and ask an honest question “Is there anyone who really, truly, absolutely has to get a response from you within seconds of calling or messaging you? Really?”

What if you checked messages at the start of the hour? Twice a day? Never after dinner? What if you never checked or replied to messages on Sunday? What if you took a completely no tech weekend? A whole week? Do you think you would feel more or less rested if you took a planned break from your technology? Would you connect better to the people around you? Would you connect better to the world around you? Would you be able to think more clearly and more deeply?

My guess is that you really don’t need to be available instantly to anyone. If you do you are either more important that most of us, or think you are. I think that if instead of checking your messages constantly you developed your own set of rules for when you communicate with you who need or want to communicate with that you would not only be more present to those around you, you would also be a more effective communicator. If you turned off your tech at certain times of the day and regularly took a complete break from screens that you would be more rested, better connected to the important people in your life, and would be able to think better and deeper than you ever have before.

I think some of that better and deeper thinking may well lead you to some new ideas, some new answers and some bigger dreams. You could probably think of a way that technology could help you make those ideas real, solve those problems, and achieve those dreams if you used it like a tool.

Better get creating.